To 3D Print Coney Island

One artist is recreating a 100-year-old amusement park with very new technology.
Laure Leber

Fred Kahl, a creative director and designer at New York media firm Funny Garbage, is using a very new technology to create a very old thing. The new technology: MakerBot 3D printers. The old thing: The demolished Luna Park amusement park at Coney Island—resurrected detail by detail, ride by ride.

“Long ago, I came to the realization that I just wanted to make work for myself and not play the gallery game,” Kahl says about his dream to spend 30 years quietly creating a single diorama. “Since I first learned about Luna Park, I knew it would be my Étant donnés,” referring to Duchamp’s miniature Xanadu.

Kahl’s introduction to Coney Island in 1984 consumed his imagination, like it did for many artists who have painted, photographed, and performed there. “There was still a lot of traces of the old Coney Island left at that time, but it was in this magical state of decay,” he says. It was Ric Burns's 1991 Coney Island documentary on PBS’s American Experience that sparked the idea of bringing Luna Park back to life: “I would recreate the park in matchsticks during my retirement,” Kahl thought.

Luna Park’s designer Frederic Thompson was a turn-of-the-century renegade who dropped out of the Beaux Art Academy to create fantastical proto-postmodern architecture by mixing and matching disparate styles. All this was further embellished by hundreds of thousands of Edison's new light bulbs. Rem Koolhaas cites Coney Island and Thompson in his book Delirious New York as an early influence on the skyscraper.

“What is special to me about Luna Park is the fantasy architecture and its particular place in history as society was transformed by technology,” Kahl says. “These are themes that are relevant to us today as our world is transformed by the third industrial revolution. Its also about a deep love of Coney Island as the cultural melting pot and showcase for cutting-edge technologies.”

Kahl is not a nostalgist, though. “Creating inspiring fantasy architecture is also important to me amidst the city's rezoning of Coney's amusement zone,” he says. “There's a lot of development that's going to happen out there and I'd prefer to see innovative architectural forms instead of bland refrigerator boxes.” If his MakerBot opus can influence that, he says, that “would be great.”

First he has to make sure the five 3D printers working out of his home studio are churning out the goods. “At any given time I have at least three machines printing," he says. "I try to start prints every morning and every evening. It’s still a lot of work maintaining them, though; bearings need replacing, boards fry, extruders clog. I can't even tell you how many hours I've put into this. It’s totally obsessive.” 

Kahl makes models based on reference from a collection of historic Luna Park imagery that he has gathered. “In the old days I would find postcards at flea markets,” he says. “The advent of Ebay made collecting postcards easier. I have hundreds of cards and photos now, as well as images I've scrounged online from the Library of Congress, Pinterest, blogs, you name it.” (His Flickr set is here.)

He first started modeling the park using SketchUp software, “but soon realized that the tools were too simple for the park's ornate decorations,” he says. This fall he took an online class in ZBrush, a sophisticated 3D-modeling program. “I basically build the park's structures in software using photo references, and place a 3D scan of a human in the model for scale to get the proportions right," he says. "When I'm done, I export parts, scale them and cut them into printable sized chunks that will later be glued and assembled. Its hard to reconstruct because the park changed every season, so I'm just shooting for an amalgam of what it was at its peak around 1914.”

Kickstarter has helped fund much of the project; Kahl says he’s going to work 3D-printed versions of his donors into the tableau. A portion of it will be exhibited at The Coney Island Museum in May. I asked him whether he’s attempting to do for Coney Island what the Queens Museum diorama model of New York does for the entire City. His reply: “I would say its analogous, but in a much larger scale. My models are 1:13 scale. I may have made a mistake, because it’s going to be enormous if I ever model the whole park! For this summer in the Coney Island Museum I have only a 14'x12' space, but I estimate the final work may need over 30' of length. As I complete new pieces I will continue building out the park over course the exhibit.”

In other words, it’s a really big miniature. “We'll see where we get this year, but I have the sense this project will take years to complete.” 

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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